Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility Niamh McGarry, Author at Impact on Urban Health
Street with planters and signs blocking access to car traffic

Health effects of air pollution Childhood obesity

How community researchers are helping us assess Healthy Streets

1 June 2021
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4 min read

Through our Healthy Streets Southwark project, we're using researchers from the local area to help us evaluate measures to make streets safer and more useable.

Niamh McGarry
Research Director at ClearView Research

Healthy Streets Southwark is a pilot we’ve funded with Southwark Council to test street changes to try and make streets safer and easier for people to walk, cycle and spend time. As part of the evaluation, we are investing in community engagement, carried out by ClearView Research, to ensure we hear the experiences and opinions of local people who might not engage in the council’s online consultation platform. 

In this blog, Niamh McGarry, Research Director at ClearView Research, explains the approach and some of the Community Researchers involved share their experiences.

 

The community research approach

Community research is a great way to co-create and engage with the local community. For this project, we reached out to residents in the areas where the changes were taking place and recruited a group of nine residents of different ages, genders and ethnicities. This group of community researchers then attended our education programme focused on research and engagement that provides training in research design, methods, fieldwork approaches, community engagement, analysis and reporting. Following training, we worked closely with the community researchers to support them as they engaged with their own communities locally to better understand the impact of the street changes. 

This approach is great as it gives control over the research back to the communities themselves and allows them to decide what the focus of the research should be. For example, the community researchers identified that the impact of the changes can be different for long term residents compared to those who are renting in the area for a short time, or for parents compared to residents who do not have children. Having community researchers in the field also supports other residents to share their views more openly and helps us to gather insights from residents who normally would not share their views.

Justin, one of nine Community Researchers recruited for this project, believes community research “is a really good way to get feedback from local residents” because it gives people “an opportunity to voice their feelings and views. Doing it in person allows a two-way dialogue and allows some people to let off a bit of steam rather than, for example, filling out a form online.” And Community Researcher, Paul, agrees that “everyone, regardless of opinion, seemed to feel much happier to have a human to represent their concerns to than putting them online.”

Planter in North Peckham
One of the Healthy Streets locations
Cargo bike
A cargo bike travelling down a Healthy Streets area

Community research in the time of Coronavirus

Justin points out that conducting this kind of research during a pandemic has not been without its challenges. “initially I found it a bit daunting approaching strangers on the street to talk, especially in the current climate.” 

To help overcome Coronavirus obstacles and engage a cross-section of residents, Community Researchers have used a variety of techniques from observations, to reaching out to existing contacts. Shamima says “I carry out my research by going to areas where there is space for social distancing. I also interview my neighbours and ask them if they know anyone who would like to talk to me about their experiences and if they are out and they see me then they would send the person my way.  If the weather isn’t so great then I would carry out observations from my window, I can see part of St Giles Road and Peckham road so this helps me with putting together my research too.”

While Paul “wanted to focus on getting the micro-local opinions from the people directly affected and not necessarily represented by the pressure groups, so I focussed on local WhatsApp groups, working with my neighbours and sitting on the side of the street to observe who is going where. I also stopped pedestrians and cyclists where that seemed reasonable.”

The community research we are doing is important because the council need to hear how the residents feel about their area.  At the end of the day, it’s these people who have to live with any changes every single day so they need to know what impact this is having on the residents, whether this is positive, negative or neutral.

Shamima Community researcher

“A Marmite issue”

The research is being carried out over a period of five weeks, to see if residents’ experiences and opinions change over time. At the end of this period, the findings will be submitted to Southwark Council alongside data on how people use the streets and the flow of motorised vehicles and cycles. 

It’s too early to draw conclusions, but Justin says “I’ve found that the initial feedback to the healthy street changes has been very mixed. Some feel that the changes are a total waste of time and money whilst one person thought that they were the best thing that Southwark Council has ever done.” Paul’s initial impressions have also been polarised “People either like it or hate it. Around here it seems to be a Marmite issue.” Whilst Shamima had “got the impression that people were stressed” and “wanted their streets to be back to the way it was originally.” 

What is clear is that we’re likely to get a mixed response from the research, and this might not align with the behaviour and traffic flow data. For example, the data might show more people walking and cycling in some streets after the changes were made, but the opinions collected by Community Researchers might tell a different story. Activity, behaviours, perceptions and opinions can be contradictory, and traditional consultation practices don’t reach all parts of a community, and so the community research approach can help to deliver a richer and more nuanced evaluation.

 

This project sits within a wider portfolio of projects for our childhood obesity and air pollution programmes and is one of several important steps towards reducing the health gap that affects so many families in our communities.